Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Foundry: legendary climbing centre

(Written 10/03/2008)
Climbing; originally the past-time of the bearded few, struggling up the side of rock faces, scrambling over bulging outcrops and battling with the elements in their never-ending quest to beat nature – or, depending on your outlook, be “one” with nature.

So when did we decide to move an outdoor pursuit indoors, negating the worry of bad weather, replacing the rocks with plastic and the cliffs with wood and concrete?

Training for the “real thing” was the original purpose of indoor climbing walls, fingerboards, pull-up bars and various other exercise paraphernalia, but it wasn’t a sudden change, a progressive shift has brought us to where we are today.

Vast gyms with coloured holds of every shade, hue, and tone, rubber and foam padded floors, climbing of every type, variety, complexity and difficulty, all under one big roof.

There are shops, cafes, toilets, changing rooms, heaters and instructors, and they are all in one place, easily accessible and ready for use.

The pioneers, the “real rock climbers”, will know how climbing should be: miles from civilisation with nothing but a bar of Kendal mint cake and a flask of tea, the bitterly cold rain lashing their faces, and the challenge of a cliff face, the only obstacle between them and the next toilet break.

Even those who consider themselves among this masochistic crowd need to train and the indoor wall has become the preferred, and most effective, method of doing that.

So back when indoor climbing consisted of chips in the brick and concrete walls, glued on stones, and rough wooden holds, a group of climbers in Sheffield came up with the idea of opening a dedicated centre – and so The Foundry Climbing Centre was born.

The Foundry was named after the building, which was a steel foundry up until the early 1970’s, and is at the heart of climbing in the UK, both in terms of its iconic status among the climbing community and also in being located in the widely regarded capital of climbing, Sheffield.

“When we opened we were the first dedicated climbing wall but there were still a lot of sports centre walls open. You know; the chips out of the wall kind of climbing walls. It was 1990 and we needed a better wall than that and so The Foundry started from there really. 

We started looking for a location and The Foundry was founded,” said Neil Bentley, General Manager of The Foundry Climbing Centre.

“There was other walls opening around the same time but we were just ahead. A wall in Bristol opened just a few weeks after The Foundry. The Birmingham wall and a centre in London opened shortly afterwards as well. I think a lot of the first walls were inspired by this place though. Even now we have people coming down to have a look who are thinking of opening their own walls.”

Rich in history, not just as the first independent climbing centre, but also for the many climbing legends that have danced, battled, and competed on The Foundry’s diverse range of routes. The centre has also held a number of major international climbing events over the years.

To name a few; The British International Climbing Competition (BICC) in 1992; internationals in 1995 and 1997; the Foundry International Bouldering Open (FIBO), which was Britain’s first international masters, in 1995; the first British University Sports Association (BUSA) climbing events in the 1990’s; and the World Fire-fighters Games in 2004.

Neil said: “I suppose the fact we were the first in the country makes us stand out from the rest but it doesn’t mean we can sit on our laurels. We can’t just use the fact that we were the first. We’ve got to try to keep up the initiative and introduce something new each year - but the basics are what we try to stick to.”

A climbing legend in his own right, after many difficult ascents spanning his 22-year climbing career, Neil is always looking towards the future for The Foundry - especially as competing centres are opening all over the country.

“We have a friendly environment here and it comes from the top down, including all the staff. We listen to the customer and we are always trying to improve the wall. I would say we’re a reasonable wall for everybody and a well run facility and I think that’s what people see.

“You’ve got to keep changing and creating and keep improving the facilities and stick to the basics over the long run. There are a lot of companies out there but I think we’ll still be here in another ten years.”

The increasing popularity of indoor walls has meant that a climbing gym can be found in most major cities in the UK these days.

Neil said: “I would say indoor walls have probably become more popular. There are new things around for everyone now. You’ve got to be completely inclusive for every group - from school groups, and people climbing for the first time, to people that come down here to train.”

Sheffield, being internationally renowned for its vast quantity of world-beating grit stone routes, should make for one of the best places in the world for a climbing centre. However, Neil has a different opinion.

“The biggest problem we’ve got with Sheffield is that it’s so near to so much great outdoor climbing. The “proper” climbers, as I call them, go outside whenever they can, and because there is so much around Sheffield, that can be a problem for us. It does help to have a large climbing community in Sheffield but again this means that other walls open here as well. There are four climbing centres in Sheffield now. It’s great for climbers but it’s difficult for the climbing business,” said Neil.

Using its reputation, history, location, drive to improve, and its view to the future, The Foundry is unlikely to follow the path of its building’s previous occupier and producer of Sheffield’s most famous export; steel.

Sheffield has a new international reputation and at its heart is The Foundry.